Every worker deserves to feel safe in their workplace. This is not only a fact, but it’s the law—employers are legally obligated to ensure discrimination and workplace harassment aren’t happening in their places of employment and to their workers. Certain actions can be considered harassment in a workplace when those actions take away or harm someone’s ability to do their job and/or are deemed inappropriate for a workplace situation.
One of those actions could be compliments. Although complimenting a coworker might seem innocent, sometimes it can cross the line and be considered harassment. As a worker, you need to be careful about your actions in the workplace. As a victim, you need to know what constitutes as harassment when it comes to compliments, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Let’s take a look at when compliments can be considered harassment on the job so employees and employers can best understand the distinction and when something needs to be done.
The Difference Between a Compliment and Harassment
When you’re building professional relationships with your coworkers, one of the tactics you might use is giving compliments. While innocent enough, and they could be well-intentioned, compliments aren’t always the welcome comments you might think they are—they could actually make your coworkers feel the opposite about themselves.
There is a fine line that separates compliments from harassment in the workplace. It can be hard to discern that line, as relationships between coworkers can be complicated, just as relationships outside of the workplace. Here are some of the factors that play into whether a compliment is considered okay or harassment:
- Whether it’s a welcome or unwelcome comment
- Feeling you get from the comment
- Relationship with that coworker or supervisor
- Patterns in behavior
- Work environment changing to hostile
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the biggest factor in determining that a compliment is harassment is when the comment was unwelcome, which makes it verbal harassment. This can easily create a hostile work environment, which violates Title VII, or the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlines unlawful employment practices.
This all could still seem a little vague if you’re unsure whether a compliment you received could be considered harassment or not. Let’s take a look at some examples that could help you determine if your experience in the workplace could be considered sexual harassment.
Examples of Compliments That Verge on Harassment
There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to discerning the difference between an innocent compliment and sexual harassment in the workplace. When a compliment has to do with a worker’s appearance, attractiveness, or any other aspect that could be seen as sexual, then it’s likely the so-called compliment is actually a vehicle for sexual harassment.
For example, there’s a difference between complimenting a coworker on their sweater compared to complimenting how they look in that sweater. This is where nuance and gray areas come into play—even though a person’s intentions might be innocent, or they claim they are, that doesn’t mean they’re perceived that way.
Here are some examples of when so-called compliments could be considered sexual harassment in the workplace:
- “Jokes” about the way someone looks, their gender identity, or their sexuality
- Comments on someone’s body
- Comments on someone’s gender or sexual orientation
- Sexual advances that are clearly unwanted
- Suggestive comments and movements
- Texts, emails, and messages that are unwelcome and suggestive
- The comments scare or threaten you
Whether it was one huge comment that was unwelcomed and offensive, or many low-level comments that were mildly unwelcome but have all added up over time, then you deserve to report the behavior so you can be protected from this unwanted attention and harassment.
Let’s take a look at what you can do if you experienced sexual harassment at work, or if you witnessed the harassment of someone else.
What to Do If You’ve Experienced or Witnessed Harassment on the Job
The EEOC has recommendations for what you can do if you have been harassed by a coworker, manager, or other supervisor, or what you can do if you witness workplace harassment. It’s important for you to report this behavior because not only is it unwelcome, but it’s also unlawful.
When you’ve personally experienced the unwanted compliments and other comments, the first thing you’ll want to do is tell the person who made the comments that they were unwelcome. While this can be incredibly intimidating, it’s an important first step.
From there, you can report their behavior to your higher ups, human resources, or the EEOC. Look into your company’s policy on harassment and their procedures so you can ensure you’re following the correct steps. After you’ve reported the harassment, you could also hire an employment lawyer so you can make sure your rights are protected throughout the entire process.
When you’ve witnessed the harassment, your steps are similar. Tell the person who made the comment that it was inappropriate or unwelcome, and report the behavior to higher ups, HR, or the EEOC. From there, it can be helpful to talk with the victim and make sure they’re okay.
McMath Woods P.A. Will Stand Up for Your Rights
After being sexually harassed in the workplace, you’re likely feeling vulnerable and unsure how to go about standing up for yourself. That’s where our sexual harassment lawyers at McMath Woods P.A. come in. We understand how sensitive this time is and are here to ensure you’re comfortable through every step of the filing process while making your claim as strong as possible.
You don’t have to choose between comfort and justice—we’re here to provide you with both. Reach out to our office today if you feel you have a potential claim so we can get started fighting for your rights in the workplace.
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